Human Cortical θ during Free Exploration Encodes Space and Predicts Subsequent Memory
Spatial representations and walking speed in rodents are consistently related to the phase, frequency, and/or amplitude of θ rhythms in hippocampal local field potentials. However, neuropsychological studies in humans have emphasized the importance of parietal cortex for spatial navigation, and efforts to identify the electrophysiological signs of spatial navigation in humans have been stymied by the difficulty of recording during free exploration of complex environments. We resolved the recording problem and experimentally probed brain activity of human participants who were fully ambulant. On each of 2 d, electroencephalography was synchronized with head and body movement in 13 subjects freely navigating an extended virtual environment containing numerous unique objects. θ phase and amplitude recorded over parietal cortex were consistent when subjects walked through a particular spatial separation at widely separated times. This spatial displacement θ autocorrelation (STAcc) was quantified and found to be significant from 2 to 8 Hz within the environment. Similar autocorrelation analyses performed on an electrooculographic channel, used to measure eye movements, showed no significant spatial autocorrelations, ruling out eye movements as the source of STAcc. Strikingly, the strength of an individual's STAcc maps from day 1 significantly predicted object location recall success on day 2. θ was also significantly correlated with walking speed; however, this correlation appeared unrelated to STAcc and did not predict memory performance. This is the first demonstration of memory-related, spatial maps in humans generated during active spatial exploration.